Diabolical Revenge on The Boys
There’s something about revenge that most of us intuitively understand. It’s universal, isn’t it? When we’re wronged or when someone we love is wronged, especially in a significant way, it seems natural to want to get even, right? Isn’t that what the Code of Hammurabi was all about?
From Hamlet to Captain Ahab to the Sith in Star Wars and Arya Stark in Game of Thrones (as well as Clint Eastwood’s filmography), there’s just something appealing about a quest for vengeance – even the Avengers are all about payback. As Tony rants at the beginning of Endgame, “We’re the a-vengers not the pre-vengers. We do our best work after the fact, right?” And, as Karl Urban’s Billy Butcher says on Amazon’s The Boys, “that’s where I come in.”
In the show’s first season, Butcher is clearly on a quest. Like Ahab and Hamlet, Butcher is driven by his hatred for Homelander (Butcher’s White Whale or Uncle Claudius) to the point that vengeance is all he thinks about and all he wants anyone else to think about. As Butcher tells a group of non-supes who meet to discuss their experiences with supes, which involves being injured in some way by supes:
You’re a bunch of pathetic Supe-worshipping c*nts. I bet you’d thank a Supe if they sh*t on your mum’s best china. Did it ever occur to you that they split your spine or broke your d*ck just for a laugh? Where’s your f*cking rage?! Your self-respect?! Sitting here in your little share circle. Having a little whinge and a moan. F*ck ‘letting go.’ You should be out there with a f*cking chain saw, going after ’em! Just a bunch of scared f*cking rabbits.
Butcher believes his wife was raped and likely killed by Homelander and he’s been nursing a grudge against Homelander for eight years. As Butcher sees it (and as he wants everyone else to see it), Supes are the enemy, and he takes absolute pleasure in hunting, torturing, and killing any Supe he can find.
In other words, Butcher is consumed by a thirst for vengeance and, depending on how the show will eventually end, he could easily suffer the same fate as Hamlet or Ahab (or the fate he suffers in the comics), which is one of the lessons revenge quests are supposed to teach us. The victim might be sympathetic and we might root for them to get payback (and Karl Urban is immensely likeable even when he’s being a surly c*nt to everyone around him), but the moral seems to be that those who pursue vengeance are no better than those who wronged them.
For example, in Lost, the character of Sawyer was so consumed by vengeance that he literally became the man who killed his parents, taking not just the name Sawyer, but the profession of a con-man, too. What’s interesting for Sawyer’s narrative is that he actually gets his revenge when the original Sawyer (who happens to be Locke’s biological father) is taken to the island. Afterwards, we see Sawyer becoming more James than Sawyer, having defeated his white whale rather than being dragged down with it.
Is this what’ll happen to the Amazon show’s version of Butcher?
Of course, on The Boys, many characters have an axe to grind. Hughie saw A-Train literally run through his girlfriend, Robin. Annie has a #metoo moment with Deep. Frenchie and Mallory want revenge on Lamplighter because Lamplighter torched Mallory’s grandkids. And Kimiko wants to kill Stormfront because Stormfront killed her brother. In fact, with each episode, it seems as if there’s a character (non-supe or supe) who gets wronged in some way to the point that revenge crosses their mind.
But why vengeance? Why not justice? And why vengeance to the point of death? (In the comics, Butcher wants to kill every person who has taken Compound V, which includes The Boys, because, in the comic version, they take Compound V in order to fight the Supes).
It’s worth nothing that one of the things Amazon’s version of The Boys does well (like Game of Thrones used to do) is make every single character a shade of grey – which means no one is perfectly good or perfectly evil. Almost everyone commits murder (innocent people and not-so innocent people die frequently and horrifically), is haunted by some traumatic past (or traumatic present, like Hughie, from Robin’s death to the whale’s belly), and makes morally questionable choices (while occasionally making some altruistic choices). And this makes it difficult to know who to root for and who to root against.
This is what makes vengeance tricky, especially when we get all self-righteous about it. Butcher is so certain that Homelander raped and killed his wife that every action he takes to exact revenge on Homelander seems justified. This is because it never occurs to Butcher that there might be another explanation.
Similarly, Frenchie (and Mallory) are so sure that Lamplighter is a vile person who sadistically burned Mallory’s grandchildren that they never consider any other possibility.
So, it’s interesting to see Butcher’s reaction when he learns the truth about Becca and Homelander. And it’s even more compelling to see Frenchie actually beg Mallory not to kill Lamplighter when Frenchie learns the truth (and reveals his own truth) about Lamplighter.
This is what makes revenge tricky, and justice, too, for how far do we take it? Even if we are certain (even if we have irrefutable proof) is vengeance really the answer? Is revenge the same as justice? As Vito Corleone says to Bonasera the undertaker at the beginning of The Godfather when Bonasera asks Don Corleone to kill the men who physically beat his daughter, “that is not justice, your daughter’s still alive.”
It’s an interesting scene, because it shows (decades before Tony Soprano) that even mobsters have a moral compass and an understanding of proportional response – you get even, but that’s it (unless you want to start a war, which means you have to “go to the mattresses”).
This is because vengeance typically exists in a cycle, one that never really ends until everyone is dead – which is why House Reyne was extinct in Westeros, because Tywin Lannister made sure every single man, woman, and child were killed (as the lyric goes, “now the rains weep over his hall with not a soul to hear”).
Indeed, there are many conceptions of justice in philosophy, but when it comes to revenge we usually think of retributive justice, which is focused on punishment (which is what Bonasera and Butcher want), and restorative justice, which is focused on making the victim whole again.
In our society, restoration usually means a monetary settlement. Consider the Breonna Taylor wrongful death suit. To be sure, $12 million won’t restore Breonna’s life, but the concept of compensation, what the Anglo-Saxons called wergild (the monetary value of a human life), is as old as revenge itself and it’s how we (sadly) measure restoration in many cases.
In fact, this is exactly what Vought does when they offer Hughie a $45,000 check after Robin gets killed. Or, when they make A-Train apologize or when Deep apologizes to Starlight. There’s an attempt to restore so that things are even again.
Of course, Butcher and Hughie and the rest of the Boys (and Kimiko) aren’t focused on restoration, they’re focused on punishment. They want Homelander and A-Train (and Vought and all the c*nt Supes) to face retribution.
As Butcher explains to Hughie: “See, people love that cozy feeling Supes give them, but if you knew half the sh*t they get up to … F*ckin’ diabolical. But then, that’s where I come in. To spank the bastards when they get out of line.” Or, as Starlight rhetorically poses to Butcher, “only good Supe is a dead Supe?”
And, given what the Supes do (seriously, do they ever even save anyone?), it’s easy to see Butcher’s perspective. Restorative justice isn’t justice because it would be meaningless. It’s the same logic Stormfront uses when Homelander catches a robber in an alley. As she reasons, “he’ll probably just be released tomorrow,” because as Homelander also recognizes, “sometimes it feels like the justice system doesn’t work anymore.”
By Stormfront’s logic, punishment is useless. Only death works. Thus, when Homelander (accidentally?) crushes the robber’s head after Stormfront (accidently?) broke his hand, it doesn’t matter to them. They can just have sex while smearing the robber’s blood on each other’s face.
So, if you can’t seek restoration – or if you offer it because it’s good for a public relations stunt – then what’s left?
We’re back to the grey, with heroes and villains (Supes and non-Supes) pursuing payback against one another with fierce brutality. It’s not justice, as Don Corleone recognized, and it’s not retribution or restoration. It’s an endless cycle of violence that sadly reflects the state of our deeply polarized, us-versus-them nation.
Perhaps that’s what makes The Boys feel exactly right in our f’d up, Covid-19 world, because it’s a mirror that allows us to see ourselves exactly as we are – flawed, with blood smeared on our faces, absolutely certain that those who don’t think and believe like us are the enemy, seeking vengeance at all costs as we drive head-first into the belly of a whale. Because that’s just the kind of year it is right now.
If there’s any hope (for us and for Butcher) it resides in the glimpse of civility and bonding that takes place between two enemies when they realize that they want or love the same thing. This is what happens to Butcher and Starlight, who work together to save Hughie after things go sideways at the Sage Grove Center in season two’s sixth episode “The Bloody Doors Off.”
By the end of the episode Starlight essentially becomes part of the team, as she’s greeted by Kimiko with a hug, accepted by Mother’s Milk and Frenchie (who helps Starlight remover her tracking chip), and eventually by Butcher, who (after he considers shooting her in the head with a rifle) realizes that maybe not all Supes are bad, like he did when he accepted Kimiko back in season one.
Perhaps this is the best type of restorative justice we can hope for – for The Boys and for our real-world society: a justice born out of the realization that, at root, we all want the same thing, that we’re not all enemies, and that coming together might just be the best way to end the cycle of vengeance. Because, for all the mayhem and madness (which, is often hilariously absurd on The Boys), you can only see so many heads and bodies explode (or the tickers showing the constantly-rising Covid numbers) before it becomes pointless.
If Butcher and Starlight can agree, maybe so can we.
Edwardo Pérez is a tenured, full professor of English at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at The University of Texas at Arlington. When he gets around to it, he manages his philosophical and critical theory website lightsabertoss.com.